September 10, 2005 – Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was born on April 18, 1924 in Vinton, Louisiana. He learned to play an impressive array of instruments such as guitar, fiddle, mandolin, viola as well as harmonica and drums. His professional musical career began in 1945, playing drums in San Antonio, Texas. He was nicknamed the “Gatemouth” by a high school instructor who told him of having a “voice like a gate”.
For more than 50 years he performed his unique blend of blues, R&B, country, jazz, and Cajun music being a virtuoso on guitar, violin, harmonica, mandolin, viola, and even drums, Gatemouth has influenced performers as diverse as Albert Collins, Frank Zappa, Lonnie Brooks, Eric Clapton, and Joe Louis Walker.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown started playing fiddle by age 5. At 10, he taught himself an odd guitar picking style he used all his life, dragging his long, bony fingers over the strings.
In his teens, Brown toured as a drummer with swing bands and was nicknamed “Gatemouth” for his deep voice. After a brief stint in the Army, he returned in 1945 to Texas, where he was inspired by blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. Brown’s career took off in 1947 when Walker became ill and had to leave the stage at a Houston nightclub. The club owner invited Brown to sing, but Brown grabbed Walker’s guitar and thrilled the crowd by tearing through “Gatemouth Boogie” – a song he claimed to have made up on the spot, T-Bone was not amused by the young upstart, but the crowd went wild, tossing $600 at Brown’s feet in 15 minutes.
He made dozens of recordings in the 1940s and ’50s, including many regional hits — “Okie Dokie Stomp,” “Boogie Rambler,” and “Dirty Work at the Crossroads.” But he became frustrated by the limitations of the blues and began carving a new career by recording albums that featured jazz and country songs mixed in with the blues numbers. “He is one of the most underrated guitarists, musicians and arrangers I’ve ever met, an absolute prodigy,” said Colin Walters, who wrote Brown’s biography.
Brown — who performed in cowboy boots, cowboy hat and Western-style shirts — lived in Nashville in the early 1960s, hosting an R&B television show and recording country singles. In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded “Makin’ Music,” an album that included blues and country songs and a cover of the Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellington classic “Take the A-Train.”
Brown recorded with Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt and others, but he took a dim view of most musicians — and blues guitarists in particular. He called B.B. King one-dimensional. He dismissed his famous Texas blues contemporaries Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland as clones of T-Bone Walker, whom many consider the father of modern Texas blues. “All those guys just tried to sound like T-Bone,” Brown said. By the end of his career, Brown had more than 30 recordings and won a Grammy award in 1982. “I’m so unorthodox, a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said in a 2001 interview. In his last years Brown suffered ill-health but managed to record a final album, “Timeless”, in 2004.
He sadly died from lung cancer at his brother’s home in Orange, Texas, just days after his home in Slidell, Louisiana was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.